Marking the LZ, or How a Sense of Purpose Helps People Focus

Now Zad, Afghanistan, 2011 (author's photo)

Can leaders find a way to have their people participate in solving their own problems?

We arrived on the scene shortly after Corporal Szekely got shot through the trapezoid muscle of his left shoulder. Luckily the wound was not life-threatening and the Corpsman providing first aid had the situation well in hand. (If the bullet had been just an inch or two to his right, it would have been a much different story.) Corporal Szekely could walk under his own power and was going to recover, but he still needed to be evacuated. He needed a higher level of care than we could provide in the field, or anywhere in Afghanistan for that matter.

Szekely’s company commander, Captain Ryan Schramel, was there with his security detachment. When I arrived we had a quick chat to update each other. We were about a week into a major operation and Ryan’s company was the main effort, they were pushing the Taliban out away from the center of the Now Zad District in Helmand Province. Captain Schramel was preparing to run the medical evacuation (or MEDEVAC) for Corporal Szekely, but I could tell he also wanted to get back up to the front lines to lead the rest of his company (they were then in a running gunfight with the Taliban).

I told him to go ahead and rejoin his company, my security detachment would secure the LZ and run the MEDEVAC. Our battalion was spread over two districts on that deployment, so we covered a lot of territory. The battalion’s Sergeant Major and I typically patrolled around our area of operations with a detachment of 4-5 vehicles and about 20 Marines. After I made the offer to assist, Captain Schramel asked once, “Are you sure?” When I said yes, he departed, speeding toward the sound of gunfire in the distance.

Our detachment quickly swung into gear, spreading out across an expanse of Afghan desert to create a security bubble where a helicopter could land safely. My radio operator worked up the details for the message he would send once the helicopter got close enough to receive landing instructions.

Corporal Szekely and I talked a little bit, I tried to keep his attention off his wound. As the MEDEVAC helicopter approached, I handed him the smoke grenade that we were going to use to mark the landing zone. He walked out a few meters toward the zone, and then threw it toward the zone’s center as best he could with all the bandages swaddling his shoulders. It wasn’t a perfect bullseye, but it was more than adequate. I grabbed the gear that he couldn’t carry, then walked him out and loaded him and his gear on the helicopter after it landed.

I’ve thought about this event often over the years, I learned a tremendous amount from it. Here are a few lessons I drew from it that I think are useful for other leaders to consider:

1. As a leader, be alert for opportunities to reinforce messages about the kind of culture you want in your organization. We had invested tremendous energy in building our battalion’s sense of brotherhood before and during deployment. Everything about this incident – letting Captain Schramel rejoin his company, having our detachment take over responsibility for the MEDEVAC, and giving Corporal Szekely the opportunity to mark the LZ for his own evacuation – let the Sergeant Major and me demonstrate what we wanted through our own actions.

2. Servant leadership actually means you have to serve the people you lead.

3. Let people participate in their own evacuation if you can, it’s good for their state of mind. Said another way, even if you as a leader help one of your people solve a problem, make every effort to have them contribute in a meaningful way. With a little imagination, you can find a lot of creative ways to involve them.

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